An unusual side to the Corps’ Civil Works mission is our regulatory role to control and protect the nation’s aquatic environment, particularly our rapidly disappearing wetlands. Two major federal laws -- one reaching all the way back to the turn of the century -- guide this program.
The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 was designed to help regulate activities that might obstruct navigation. This legislation gave the Corps of Engineers regulatory authority over virtually any construction, excavation or fill activities that had potential to impact navigable waters of the United States.
By 1970 it was generally understood that discharge of dredged and fill material into water bodies and wetlands during construction projects was seriously damaging our environment. Recognizing this, in 1972 Congress passed the Water Pollution Control Act, now known as the Clean Water Act. That legislation gave the Corps much broader authority to regulate dredge and fill activities in “waters of the United States” and their tributaries and adjacent wetlands. This added a preservation mission to go along with the Corps’ traditional safe-navigability role that was established by the Rivers and Harbors Act.
Since the 1970s, this mission has grown and evolved. Today the Corps of Engineers serves as an impartial decision-maker. The Corps’ permit decisions weigh the rights of the property owner and regulated public against the need to protect the aquatic environment with the goal of making timely, fair and reasonable decisions in the public interest.
In Hawaii environmental issues are of great interest and the Honolulu District evaluated about 300 permit issues each year under its regulatory program. A contributing factor is our state’s unique environment. Hawaii has only 2/10 of 1 percent of the United States’ total land area, but more than 25 percent of the entire nation’s endangered species.